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Ottava Rima

The phrase “ottava rima” is used to describe a particular type of stanza in poetry. It uses eight iambic lines and follows a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC.

 This stanza is Italian, dating back at least to the writings of Giovanni Boccaccio. The lines make use of what is known as an iamb. That is a set of two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed. The stanzas also use alternating rhymes and one double rhyme, following the pattern listed above. 

Ottava Rima definition and examples

Ottava Rima Definition

The ottava rima stanza was a popular stanza form. It used iambs, eight lines, and a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC. The final two end words create a perfect rhyming couplet.

The ottava rima stanza was used throughout early poetic history and even, to some extent, today. While writers have generally moved away from structured poems, there are still occasions in which writers, amateur and professional, use structures like ottava rima. Often, this style of stanza is related to the Sicilian octave

Ottava Rima and Sicilian Octave 

Te Sicilian octave is an eight-line stanza that uses eleven syllables in each line (hendecasyllable). It was common in late medieval Italian poetry. When used in English poems, often iambic pentameter is employed rather than the 11-line syllabics. It follows a rhyme scheme of ABABABAB. 

Ottava Rima and Terza Rima 

Terza rima is another stanza form. It was first used by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedyor Commedia. The stanzas are nine lines long and follow a rhyme scheme of ABA BCB DED, known as interlocking rhymes. Poets do no, as in the ottava rima and Sicilian stanzas, use a specific metrical pattern. Despite this, the majority of the English examples make use of iambic pentameter, as with Sicilian stanzas. 

Examples of Ottava Rima in Poetry 

Beppo by Lord Byron 

‘Beppo’ is a long poem that was written in 1817. It was Byron’s first use of ottava rima. This piece is generally considered the precursor to ‘Don Juan,’ Byron’s masterpiece. The poem is 760 verses long and uses 95 stanzas. It tells the story of a woman whose husband has been lost at sea for three years. Here is a quote: 

‘Tis known, at least it should be, that throughout

All countries of the Catholic persuasion,

Some weeks before Shrove Tuesday comes about,

The People take their fill of recreation,

And buy repentance, ere they grow devout,

However high their rank, or low their station,

With fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masquing,

And other things which may be had for asking.

Here, Byron uses the end rhymes “throughout,” “about,” and “devout,” as well as “persuasion,” “recreation,” and “station.” The poem ends with “masquing” and “asking.” 

Read more Lord Byron poems

Isabella: or the Pot of Basil by John Keats 

‘Isabella: or the Pot of Basil’ is a long narrative poem that was adapted from the lines of the Decameron by Boccaccio. It tells the story of a woman whose family intends to marry to off. She falls for someone else, a man named Lorenzo. He’s murdered and his body is buried. His ghost returns to tell Isabella what happened. She digs him up and puts his head in a pot of basil. She tends it obsessively while pining for him. Here is a quote: 

He knew whose gentle hand was at the latch,

        Before the door had given her to his eyes;

And from her chamber-window he would catch

        Her beauty farther than the falcon spies;

And constant as her vespers would he watch,

        Because her face was turn’d to the same skies;

And with sick longing all the night outwear,

To hear her morning-step upon the stair.

Here, Keats uses the words “latch,” “catch,” and “watch,” as well as “eyes,” “spies,” and “skies.” The end words “outwear” and “stair” also rhyme at the end of the poem. 

Discover more John Keats poems.

Among the School Children by William Butler Yeats 

William Butler Yeats wrote this poem, ‘Among School Children,’ most probably in 1926 after his visit in that year to a progressive convent school at Waterfront, St. Otteran’s School. Here is a quote that shows the ottava rima form: 

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent

Above a sinking fire, a tale that she

Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event

That changed some childish day to tragedy—

Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent

Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,

Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,

Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

In this example, Yeats uses the basics of the ottava rima stanza. The end words “bent,” “event,” and “blent” all rhyme. As do “she,” “tragedy,” and “sympathy.” “Parable” and “shell” are half-rhymes at the end of the poem. 

Explore William Butler Yeats poems


Who introduced ottava rima? 

It was introduced into English by Sir. Thomas Wyatt and popularized by poets like Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. The first record of the form ever being used was in Bocaccio’s Decameron. 

Why is ottava rima significant?

It is significant because it was used by different poets, in Italy and England, and in other countries around the world, in important poems such as the Decameron. It inspired authors to copy the style and use it for generations to come. 

What kind of poem has an Italian origin? 

The ottava rima stanza form has an Italian origin, as does the terra rima form and the Sicilian stanza form. The Petrarchan sonnet form, also sometimes known as an Italian sonnet, also has its origins in Italy. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Meter: the pattern of beats in a line of poetry. It is a combination of the number of beats and arrangement of stresses.
  • Accent: the word “accent” refers to the stressed syllable in a word. Metered lines of verse are made up of different groups of syllables.
  • Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
  • Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
  • Iambic Pentameter: a very common way that lines of poetry are structured. Each line has five sets of two beats, the first is unstressed and the second is stressed.

Other Resources 

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